The Confederate-Flag Debate Spotlights the GOP’s Moral Cowardice

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Calls For Removal Of Confederate Flag Outside SC Statehouse Grow In Wake Of Race-Fueled Charleston Church Shooting
The Confederate flag flies on the Capitol grounds one day after South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley announced that she will call for the Confederate flag to be removedPhoto: Win McNamee/2015 Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week, the magazine asked him about the Confederate-flag controversy, the GOP donations from white supremacist who proselytized Dylann Roof, and President Obama’s interview with Marc Maron.

Until South Carolina governor Nikki Haley called for her state’s Confederate flag to come down, almost all the Republican presidential candidates vacillated on the question. Now the movement to retire the flag has spread across the South, not to mention to retailing giants like Walmart and Amazon. Will there be a political cost for the candidates who failed to lead after the Charleston massacre?

Say this about the Old Confederacy: At least its leaders had the courage of their own bad convictions. Today’s neo-Confederate GOP politicians, vying for primary votes in Dixie 150 years after Appomattox, proved themselves to be laughable cowards. Confronted with the simplest of questions – should a state capitol display a flag that stands for slavery, racism, and treason? – they hedged (all of them), spouted gibberish (Ted Cruz), or went into hiding (Rand Paul). If they’d been the Rebel generals in the Civil War, it would have been over in a week. 

This is the second time in three months we’ve seen GOP presidential contenders unwilling to stand up to the unreconstructed bigots still infesting their party’s base. The previous time was in April, and it followed the same pattern. First some of the candidates either endorsed or hedged about the so-called “religious freedom” bills crafted to empower businesses to discriminate against gay families. Once the signing of such a bill in Indiana by a Republican governor prompted a national backlash, candidates about-faced as quickly as they could spin.  

In the case of South Carolina, the cowardice was even more pronounced. Not even the slaughter of nine people in a church could stir the consciences of the Republican presidential contenders.  They came out against the flag only after the previously hedging Governor Haley came around. No doubt she spent a long weekend calculating how failing to do so would inflict economic retribution on her state much as the “religious liberty” law had threatened to bring corporate and convention boycotts to Indiana. Before Haley finally spoke up on Monday, the only major Republican figure to unequivocally call for the flag’s banishment was Mitt Romney, who isn’t facing GOP primary voters in 2016. After Haley joined him, we were treated to the embarrassing spectacle of Bush, Rubio, and Walker – by most reckonings, the GOP’s three leading candidates – all asserting that they had agreed with Haley all along. This combination of disingenuousness and spinelessness on a no-brainer issue should disqualify all of them from the White House.

But the Confederate flag and this clownish array of gutless presidential candidates are not the important issues here. What matters is the cost our nation continues to pay for its failure to regulate guns and to achieve racial justice. If it took the slaughter of nine people in a church to get a single state to remove a flag that is, after all, only a historic symbol of racism, you have to wonder how many people will have to die to end the implementation of racism, including the homicidal police practices and restrictive new voting laws that have proliferated in the Obama era. The notion that pulling down a flag in South Carolina somehow amounts to a major breakthrough in American racial progress is absurd. That flag never should have been flown at the Capitol in the first place. It was first installed there in 1961 as an implicit act of resistance to the growing civil-rights movement. It should have been trashed long before a mass murder belatedly sealed its demise.

The Guardian has reported that Republicans including Cruz, Paul, and Rick Santorum accepted contributions from the leader of the white supremacist group that Dylann Roof credits for his radicalization.  Those candidates quickly said they’d refund or donate the money. But couldn’t vetting an individual campaign donor based on his views and public statements set a dangerous precedent?

Perhaps so, particularly given that it would be impossible to formulate a universally accepted or enforceable code of what beliefs should disqualify a citizen from donating to political campaigns. But again, this issue is a red herring. What matters most are the actions of the politicians themselves, not the credos of their contributors. The salient fact here is that the Council of Conservative Citizens – the organization whose views Roof so admired – has enjoyed fairly recent endorsements from mainstream Republican politicians. The former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour and the former Senate majority leader Trent Lott have both spoken before it. Just this year the House Republican leadership saw no cause to remove the Louisiana congressman Steve Scalise from his position as majority whip after it was revealed that he had addressed another white supremacist group, one associated with the former Klansman David Duke.

Even more egregious is how many of the current candidates endorse the states’-rights ideology peddled by these neo-Confederate organizations. After the Charleston bloodbath, Rubio and Walker, along with many of their peers, made the argument that South Carolinians should be able to make their own decision about flying a white supremacist flag – the same argument made for secession before the Civil War and for the denial of civil rights to African-Americans during the decades of Jim Crow that followed. (It’s also been the Republican argument against national marriage equality and the expansion of Medicaid to poor Americans without health insurance.) “States’ rights” is the racial virus that entered the bloodstream of the modern Republican Party under the auspices of South Carolina’s own senator Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat who led the stampede of segregationist white Democrats to the GOP to further Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” You’d think Thurmond – who secretly fathered a child by in essence raping his family’s 15-year-old African-American family maid – would no longer be an ideological role model for anyone.

America’s nearly all-white political party has a long way to go. Along with its cadre of diehard white supremacists it also contains an aging but still powerful rump of genteel white paternalists. No one speaks for that restricted country-club crowd more eloquently than Peggy Noonan. Last weekend she wrote a Wall Street Journal blog post in which she praised the “miraculous” black families of Emanuel A.M.E. Church who forgave Dylann Roof but also asserted that no political action should be allowed to interrupt their grieving. “Why don’t you not impose your agenda items on them?” Noonan implored. “Don’t turn this into a debate on a flag or guns.” (Revealingly, she didn’t even mention a debate on race.) America is “going to be just fine,” she explained, because the mourning families “handled the tragedy with such heart and love.” Really? Her defense of the status quo, her patronizing reduction of African-Americans to prayerful pacifists, and her argument for political inaction in the face of racial terrorism reflect the magnolia-scented antebellum sentiments of Gone With the Wind just as surely as the Council of Conservative Citizens so beloved by Roof brings back the white supremacist vigilantes of Birth of a Nation.

In his interview with Marc Maron for his podcast, President Obama said he was “pretty disgusted” with Congress’s inability to address gun violence after the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, and advocated for enhanced gun-safety laws in the wake of Charleston. Why did Obama’s use of the N-word in that interview generate more conversation this week than his renewed call for gun control?

The failure — of Democrats as well as Republicans — to act on gun legislation in the aftermath of the horror of the Sandy Hook massacre has rendered the issue a political non-starter for the foreseeable future. The president can (and should) talk about it as much as he wants, but unless voters in both parties demand action, it’s not happening. The good thing about his use of the N-word is that while it seems to affront some commentators – “Did it cross a line?” asked Wolf Blitzer in a characteristically fatuous CNN segment – it at least gets people to listen to what the president is saying. And when a president is a lame duck, he is liberated to say whatever he damn pleases. Even though Peggy Noonan will no doubt accuse him of imposing an “agenda” on a tragedy, the president’s eulogy at the Reverand Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston on Friday promises to be one for the ages.